This sermon was first preached at a hybrid in person and online service of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Wilmette on July 31, 2022.
Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.
Thousands of people had come to listen to Jesus preach and teach. There were so many of them that they were tripping over each other, like a mosh pit at a heavy metal concert, just trying to get closer to him. As Jesus was speaking, a man interjected. To me, this person comes off like the kind of guy at an event who gets up with “really more of a comment than a question,” who monopolizes the microphone because he loves to hear himself talk.
This person was in the presence of Jesus’ wisdom. He was nearby enough to call out to him while so many others were desperate to get close enough to hear or see him. He had just heard Jesus condemn people in power and religious leaders for their hypocrisy. But instead of taking the opportunity to be reflective or to learn, this man interrupted. To make it about him. He felt his issue was important enough to derail the entire gathering and redirect towards himself. He didn’t have a question for Jesus. He had a demand.
“Jesus,” he said, “Tell my brother to divide our family’s inheritance with me.”
Jesus was not about to get in the middle of some family disagreement. But he did take the opportunity to refocus the conversation, to get back on track, by giving a warning to the man and telling the entire crowd a parable.
The story Jesus told is dripping with irony. There is this rich guy who has so much grain, so many crops, that he literally doesn’t know what to do with it all. You can kind of picture like, there are these barns and they are stuffed to the brim that around the edges of the windows, wheat is bursting through the cracks. The barns are so overstuffed, that the doors are bending and bowing under the weight until the hinge gives way and it flings open and there is an outpouring of grain cascading out the front door.
This guy, barn guy, has a problem. He has way too much stuff. The solution to this should be obvious, right? Like, you have so much that you literally don’t know what to do with it, maybe, I don’t know, you downsize. You give some away. You share it.
But instead, this guy doesn’t think about his neighbors. He doesn’t share. He doesn’t think about the farm workers he most surely is employing. He doesn’t give them a raise or a bonus. He doesn’t ask others in his community what he should do with this overflowing abundance of grain. In fact, he doesn’t think of others at all. All of his thoughts are about himself. He says, “What should I do for I have no place to store my crops?!”
Rich people problems, am I right?
His solution is completely focused on himself. He says, “I will do this! My grain is too big for my barn? I will build a bigger barn! Then I will be happy.”
And we all know how that worked out. He died that very night. Because no matter how many barns you build, no matter how much wealth you hoard, there are things you can’t buy your way out of, things you can’t control.
It’s an absurd story. Because greed is absurd. Jesus knows that in God’s abundance, there is more than enough for everyone, so stockpiling resources at the expense of others is ridiculous. But yet so many people continue to hoard possessions as if it is the ultimate key to joy or security.
This story was incredibly pointed, too. This entitled man demands Jesus use his authority to leverage more wealth for him. And instead Jesus tells the piercing story of some greedy guy, and everyone there knew exactly who he was talking about.
If Jesus were to retell this story in our own time, with the same pointed satire, he might say something like this.
There was a man who was so rich, he didn’t know what to do with himself. The man in Jesus’ parable doesn’t have a name, but I am not as good of a story teller as Jesus so it helps me if my characters have names. We will give the rich man in this story a name, I don’t know, something like Schm-Elon. Schm-Elon Sch-Musk. Just off the top of my head.
Anyway. For the purposes of our story, we will say that SchmElon was just dripping with money. Like he is looking at being a Trillionaire. He has the kind of money where the numbers start to sound made up, where people start saying, “Yeah that guy, SchmElon, he’s practically a bazillionaire.”
SchmElon had a bunch of garages. He had so many garages. Big parking garages, like the ones you see downtown for major event centers and the like. And he filled his giant garages with state of the art vehicles. Schmesla Brand. He had so many Schmeslas that his ginormous parking garages were just overflowing with Schmeslas.
“What should I do with all these Schmeslas?” SchmElon asked himself. He could’ve shared some Schmeslas. Or sold them and redistributed the money. He was surrounded by people who were getting poorer and poorer while, in the midst of a global crisis, he doubled his already obscene amount of Schmeslas.
“I know!” SchmElon said, “I will go to space and build a giant parking garage on the moon for all my Schmeslas. Then I’ll be able to relax and be happy.”
The thing about wealth though, is that it’s a black hole. Once your basic needs are taken care of, anything more on top of that? The happiness you get out of constantly consuming consuming consuming more more more… has diminishing returns.
SchmElon or the rich barn guy could’ve been happy, now. They had what they needed to eat drink and be merry before the first storage space was filled up. In fact they could’ve thrown a lot of fun parties with their extras and invited their neighbors and everyone could’ve enjoyed it together because really, it’s way more fun to eat drink and be merry with other people. But instead SchmElon and barn guy believed that if they just had a little bit more, a bigger barn, a larger lunar parking garage, then they’d find happiness. They’d be satisfied. They’d have enough.
My guess is that no one here has the kind of capital that SchmElon or rich barn guy has. But how often have we bought into this same lie? How often have we looked at the SchmElons or barn guys of this world and wished that our lives were more like that? How often have we gambled our hope on Wall Street?
Especially in the midst of uncertainty and chaos like we have experienced in the past few years, we often start to feel anxious. It’s easy to get into a scarcity mindset, it is easy to buy into narratives that tell us to trust the systems of capitalism, that if we play their game, maybe we will win. But the stock market is not set up for people like you and me. It is set up to benefit the few at the expense of the many. The game is rigged. The House always wins. SchmElon and his buddies will continue to get richer, sitting on their multiplying piles of gold like an evil dragon in a fairy tale story. And as the rich get richer and richer and richer, the poor continue to get poorer, the Earth continues to get hotter and hotter, until one day it all crashes and burns.
And it will. It will crash and burn.
These systems are not eternal. They will not last. They will fall.
Sometimes it feels like we are witnessing their collapse as we speak.
The truth is? These systems? Will not take care of us. They are not designed to. So instead of counting our coins, it’s time to count on community. Jesus reminds us that the best investments aren’t in wealth. They are in one another. In people. In relationships.
It’s too late for Rich Barn Guy. And I am not super hopeful about SchmElon (although I would love to be wrong and see him redistribute all his Schmeslas, sell all his money and give to the poor). It’s too late for barn guy and maybe for SchmElon but it’s not too late for us. We can reject this economy of greed that divides us and pits us against our neighbor, an economy that is already failing, an economy we know will not last. We can let go of the economy of greed and start to live in God’s eternal economy of abundance, building networks of mutual care and support so that when this barn burns down, when this old system falls away, we are ready to step into the new kingdom that God is building right now among us.
We don’t have to wait for some distant mythical future when we will have enough. We can share and eat, drink, and be merry now. The most important ingredient isn’t enough grain in our storehouses or money in our 401ks. The key ingredient is us. Me. You. All of us. Together.
Thanks be to God.